THE TALENTED MS RILEY
"I expected critics to like it, because it was well done. I don't think I expected them to get it; some of the comments I had were so off beam that they depressed me. However I did make a couple of friends through that book, that's all I ask for in material terms I think."
Gwendoline Riley Britlit's "Camus in hotpants", tells HP Tinker why she still works in a bar.
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: When did you first want to become a writer?
GR: Since always.
3AM: So, what authors and books initially inspired you when you were growing up?
GR: When I was small I was always reading Sherlock Holmes books. After that I started reading Russians and I've not stopped since. Ivan Turgenev was the first writer I remember feeling really struck by and going out to find everything else he did. Dostoevsky, I read more as a pose initially, but I started to love him. I read those books a lot, still. Then I read Proust, then Salinger, Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy -- his poetry -- all the Brontës, I started liking Rimbaud, Baudelaire, all the very obvious things that teenagers like which is certainly not to belittle them. Then I went off on my Virago travels reading lots of books with dark green covers: Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamund Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor. I love Salinger most of all.
3AM: Your first book, Cold Water, was stupendously successful…
GR: I don't know if it was, it had good reviews, but that's a different thing.
3AM: Well, it was lavishly praised, then. Did you expect such a positive critical reaction?
GR: I expected critics to like it, because it was well done. I don't think I expected them to get it; some of the comments I had were so off beam that they depressed me. However I did make a couple of friends through that book, that's all I ask for in material terms I think.
3AM: Did it mean you felt under pressure when you started writing the follow up to Cold Water?
GR: No. I just always do my own thing, and the pressure only comes from myself. I like to push myself to get absorbed in working. At school and college I never really tried, in life there's lots of areas where I don't try, but I put all my energies into writing this book, and I'm pleased how it turned out.
3AM: How would you describe the finished work?
GR: Very intense, formally aggressive. I think it says things that needed saying.
3AM: Some critics wanted you to widen your horizons with the second book. Did you ever attempt to widen those horizons or just choose to explore more or less the same terrain?
GR: I just did what came naturally to me. Did I explore the same terrain? I suppose literally it's in the same few square miles, but the themes are all different.
3AM: You seem to have written Sick Notes quite quickly. Was the writing process really so straightforward?
GR: Well it was written over a short period of time, intensely, but then I had to let it sit for 6 months before the last draft.
3AM: Why was that?
GR: Because I was all wrung out. I had to see what I'd done, and then in the second draft I saw what I had been up to, all the themes became clear to me: blame, orphans, gravity, regurgitation and transcendence, sexuality, abortion, domestic violence, the built environment, the American dream... etcetera
3AM: The book is intense and quite metaphysical, you take a small feeling or event, then explore it on an epic scale…
GR: There are some metaphysical ponderings…
3AM: This could lead you to be labelled, for want of a better phrase, as some kind of kitchen sink existentialist.
GR: There is a kitchen sink in the book. I mean a label is a label, that one sounds a bit outdated to me, but it's better than some others. I need a new -ism.
3AM: Such as…?
GR: I'm working on it.
3AM: The book seems to be all about small details. You don't seem so concerned about plot. Do you consider yourself a prose writer first and foremost?
GR: Definitely. Books with plots put first can get dull because the plot is only interesting if the characters/writing/ideas are interesting; otherwise it's just perfunctory, it has no momentum. My books do have plots; things happen. Who's to say what's a small detail anyway? Someone can say your name a certain way and make you feel like the sky's ripped open. In writing I just like to get meaning across in however is most powerful and apposite. Sometimes it's using traditional devices; but what's best are the ways I invent myself, spontaneously. Every now and then I see a way to put something that is all new; that comes from an original angle and that really hurts. Edith Wharton is best at that, she's very instructive on that score. The Age of Innocence, a book of hers called Summer...
3AM: You wrote the book by accumulating various notes and piecing them together later. Can we read the title as a reference to the way it was written?
GR: Not especially, the title has lots of meanings, I think, to do with self-justification versus self-definition, art and regurgitation, how does the artist engage with the world. The idea of the (female) artist as a succubus… maybe... a kind of a spider. I learned a good word for bloodsucker the other week and I've forgotten it... The novel has to keep changing in form I think. This whole book has quite an aggressive form, struggling with itself, but very self-contained.
3AM: In The Brothers Karamazov, there's the idea that love in reality can't ever match up to love in dreams. And in Sick Notes there's a hint that the central character Esther might have actually imagined the key relationship in the book…
GR: There might be... A lot of life is invented one way or another, but maybe this was real and they just didn't know how to act on it. Either way, it doesn't make much difference when she looks back. Esther is so aggressively self-contained, the relationship is as real as it would have been if it existed or not. Change comes from within, and if Alice wakes up with a little 'drink me' bottle in her smock pocket or whatever, it's only in her head either way...
3AM: The streets and landmarks of Manchester are lyrically evoked throughout the book. Is Manchester a particularly inspiring place… or are you just drawing on the world around you?
GR: I think that's just where I am. I like to wander around. I'm indigenous.
3AM: You still work day and night in a Manchester bar. Why's that?
GR: I work there on and off when I need the cash. I don't want to do other types of writing to earn money so I just do this work.
3AM: Perhaps you need or needed this connection with the real world to charge up your fiction?
GR: I think it feeds something evil in me because at this point it's quite a negative experience, it requires a certain fortitude because I'm not seeing anything new, I'm rarely surprised. I feel like I've finished with writing about people in bars, but I can't seem to leave. I just refuse to get a job. I like to have time to think and to write. So I'm there for the foreseeable.
3AM: Films seem to play an important part in your life…
GR: In good films like in good writing, you see all these different devices to get meanings across. I'm a huge Orson Welles fan. Wes Anderson films are very close to my heart, for that reason, and Powell and Pressburger. I'll never get over Colonel Blimp. All those films have a certain kind of soul, that's inexplicable but very definitely there. I also really liked the film A Ma Soeur by, I think, Catherine Breillat? And recently I loved Dolls by Takeshi Kitano and Elephant, Gus Van Sant.
3AM: Do you admire any film-maker particularly?
GR: Hal Hartley. I admire him a great deal, his work is always interesting. He is experimental, thoughtful, funny, his work ethic is definitely inspirational to me. I'm in love with a character he invented. Jude in Surviving Desire. When I realise he doesn't exist in real life it gives me a physical pain. I want to stay up late with him. (But the fact he got invented and realised is encouraging nonetheless, it's enough, like with Buddy Glass, although he gives me a whole other kind of feeling, some kind of sense in my soul, I think…)
3AM: So, what exactly are you looking at when you watch a film?
GR: Films with wit and imagination and humanity and panache and brazen-ness, that come at you from angles you don't expect, with the language and the colours, anything... In writing, the people who do that for me are Denis Johnson and Dostoevsky.
3AM: Do you investigate all the mainstream Hollywood pictures too?
GR: Most films are worthless nonsense, but I seem to see most of what comes out regardless, you never know... I walk out about half of the time; it's not such a bad hit-rate. There's a book called The Moviegoer by Walker Percy that sums up what I'm trying to say better than I can do it. Incidentally, I like pick n mix, I could subsist on it.
3AM: That's not a bad thing, really. Would you like to write a film script, then?
GR: Hopefully, I'll write a film one day. Most books don't do it for me, but I don't read them anyway like with films, I read the first few pages in the shop and just get someone's vanity and get bored and itchy after two lines. I can't complain because one way or another I do tend to keep myself in reading material. When I feel I've run out, it's kind of desolating, but we beat on.
3AM: Okay. Finally. Name two books that you would recommend everybody go out and read instantly.
GR: This is Orson Welles by Peter Bogdanovich. The Name of the World by Denis Johnson.
ABOUT GWENDOLINE RILEY
Gwendoline Riley lives and writes and works in Manchester. Her first novel, Cold Water, won a Betty Trask Award and was voted one of the top five first novels of 2002 by The Guardian. Her new novel, Sick Notes, is out now.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
HP Tinker lives in Manchester where he has carved a niche for himself as the Thomas Pynchon of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Born and braised in the North of England (circa 1969), his award-avoiding fiction has appeared in Ambit, emwriting, Code Uncut, among other places, and at 3AM Magazine where is a semi-professional editor who writes about soup. Recently, he tripped up in public. Currently, he is incapacitated.